Ostensibly, my son Sam and I live alone, together. But actually we’re never really alone, because our constant companion is Food—the idea and reality of it. My long-suffering child has gotten used to hearing me natter on about produce and condiments, morning and night. He knows that any given week will include trips to a number of stores in pursuit of special ingredients. He has become accustomed to my tweaking and fussing over recipes culled from my cookbook collection and the numerous food blogs I regularly read. Generally extremely good-natured, he’s my willing grocery-shopping companion, and he has become fairly expert in his own right, capably and cannily navigating farmers’ markets and the produce sections of the various stores we frequent, with efficiency and pleasure. Sam can select perfectly ripe avocadoes for an evening’s guacamole, but knows also how to pass up the already ripe in favor of those sure to be just right for the next day. He knows how to curl his fingers under just so as he chops onions, and—yes, he is the son of… me.
I know that being the child of a food-obsessed mother is surely a mixed blessing. Even though he generally eats quite well and offers sound aesthetic advice on the food I make and how I present it, Sam has been feeling a little left out of the blog blast lately, so he and I sat down and talked about things he likes to cook with me. We came up with a long list—and I will write other posts about dishes and meals we enjoy making together —but we decided to focus, this time, on one of the more physical kitchen activities he enjoys: baking bread. (In the interests of full disclosure, let me say that even though my boy can be adventurous, sophisticated, and pretty game about eating the various things I buy, make, and insist on eating, he still has the typical kid’s soft spot for The White Foods. He’s a carb hound. And if he is going to chow down on bread, I’d just as soon it be very good bread, indeed.)
One of our favorite breads is focaccia. We’ve tried a number of different recipes, and one of the best is, not surprisingly, Marcella Hazan’s. It produces a succulent bread, moist enough to be delicious but not insipid, with some body and a good crumb. It ends up robust enough to support toppings, including Sam’s favorite, olives and rosemary. The resulting bread complements any number of Italian dishes. (I’ll admit that I’m not above making a meal of it, either—with some cheese, a salad, and a glass of wine. Most satisfying.)
Of particular interest: Marcella’s description of kneading the dough. When Sam was new to kneading, it served us well; the process is very clearly described, and Sam discovered that his favorite part (besides gobbling up the end result) is the energetic manipulating and slapping and dropping of the dough, so helpfully described by Marcella: “Pick up the dough, holding it by one of the tapered ends, lift it high above the counter, and slap it down hard again several times, stretching it out in a lengthwise direction.” Kinetic baking fun ensues, with speculation about just how high "high" means, and with some potentially therapeutic benefits for adults, as well; I, myself, don’t mind slapping around some dough after a trying day.
Mixing bread dough: sticky, kinetic fun
If you’ve set aside enough time to bake a yeast bread and happen to have a playful and eager kid in the house, I highly recommend making a couple of batches. Make focaccia with the first, and use the second to shape some dough creations. To offer inspiration for the shapes, Sam and I are including a recipe for “Tongue Rakers” from a pleasingly silly and diverting book, Roald Dahl’s Even More Revolting Recipes (1994), a collection of recipes created by Roald and Felicity Dahl and based on and inspired by food in Dahl's books. The recipes are meant to appeal to parent-child teams, and are great fun—very simple, and accompanied by delightful illustrations by Quentin Blake. The “rakers” come out tasty; Sam likes to take them to school as his snack. If you’re pressed for time but feel like pleasing your kid and smelling that magical yeasty-bread-dough-in-the-oven smell, you could also just purchase some prepared pizza dough and make the tongue rakers from that. I know what it’s like to be pressed for time, and these little creations come out looking cute and mighty tasty.
So: Make bread, not war; and if possible, do it with your kid. Sam, my accomplished dough boy, and I highly recommend it.
Focaccia with Onions, Genoese Style
Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking
Marcella comments: “The dough in the recipe given here produces a thick, tender focaccia with a crisp surface, which you can top with sautéed onion in the Genoese style, as described below, or vary in one of the alternative ways indicated, or devise a suitable variation of your own.”
For the dough
1 package active dry yeast
2 c lukewarm water
6 ½ c unbleached flour
2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 T salt
For baking the focaccia
A heavy-duty rectangular metal baking pan, preferably black, about 18 by 14 inches or its equivalent
Extra virgin olive oil for smearing the pan
A baking stone
A mixture of ¼ c extra virgin olive oil, 2 T water, and 1 t salt
A pastry brush
For the onion topping
2 T extra virgin olive oil
4 c onion sliced very, very thin
1. Dissolve the yeast by stirring it into ½ c lukewarm water, and let it stand about 10 min or slightly less.
2. Combine the yeast and 1 c of flour in a bowl, mixing them thoroughly. Then add the 2 T olive oil, 1 T salt, ¾ c water, and half the remaining flour. Mix thoroughly until the dough feels soft, but compact, and no longer sticks to the hands. Put in the remaining flour and ¾ water, and mix thoroughly once again. When putting in flour and water for the last time, hold back some of both and add only as much of either as you need to make the dough manageable, soft, but not too sticky. On a very damp, rainy day, for example, you may need less water and more of the flour.
3. Take the dough out of the bowl and slap it down very hard several times, until it is stretched out lengthwise. Reach for the far end of the dough, fold it a short distance toward you, push it away with the heel of your palm, flexing your wrist, fold it, and push it away again, gradually rolling it up and bringing it close to you. It will have a tapered, roll-like shape. Pick up the dough, holding it by one of the tapered ends, lift it high above the counter, and slap it down hard again several times, stretching it out in a lengthwise direction. Reach for the far end, and repeat the kneading motion with the heel of your palm and your wrist, bringing it close to you once more. Work the dough in this manner for 10 min. At the end, pat it into a round shape.
(Marcella notes that you can complete the first two steps in a food processor but suggests, in true Marcella fashion, that “the hand method, aside from the physical satisfactions it provides, produces a focaccia with better texture.” I am all for the physical release of throwing and kneading dough; I work up a satisfying sweat and can marvel close-up at how magically the dough morphs from sticky and slightly recalcitrant to silken and accommodating. Every task should be so satisfying!)
4. Smear the middle of the baking sheet with about 2 T olive oil, put the kneaded, rounded dough on it, cover it with a damp cloth, and leave it to rise for about 1 ½ hours.
5. For the topping: Put the 2 T of olive oil and all the sliced onion in a sauté pan, turn the heat on to medium high, and cook the onion, stirring frequently, until it is tender, but not too soft. It should still be slightly crunchy.
6. When the indicated rising time has elapsed, stretch out the dough in the baking pan, spreading it toward the edges so that it covers the entire pan to a depth of about 1/4 in. Cover with a damp towel and let the dough rise for 45 min.
7. At least 30 min before you are ready to bake, put the baking stone in the oven and preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
8. When the second rising time for the dough has elapsed, keeping the fingers of your hand stiff, poke the dough all over, making many little hollows with your fingertips. Beat the mixture of oil, water, and salt with a small whisk or a fork for a few min until you have obtained a fairly homogeneous emulsion, then pour it slowly over the dough, using a brush to spread it all the way out to the edges of the pan. You will find that the liquid will pool in the hollows made by your fingertips. Spread the cooked onion over the dough, and place the pan on the middle rack of the preheated oven. Check the focaccia after 15 min. If you find it is cooking faster on one side than another, turn the pan accordingly. Bake for another 7 to 8 min. Lift the focaccia out of the pan with spatulas, and transfer it to a cooling rack.
Serve focaccia warm or at room temperature that same day. It is preferable not to keep it longer, but if you must, it is better to freeze than to refrigerate. Reheat in a very hot oven for 10 to 12 minutes.
Variations (Sam and I combine the two below)…
Focaccia with Fresh Rosemary
Omit the onions and their cooking oil, and add several short sprigs of rosemary. Make the focaccia as directed in the basic recipe. When you check its progress in the oven after 15 min, spread over it the small sprigs of rosemary, and finish baking.
Focaccia with Black Greek Olives
Omit onions and their cooking oil, reduce the salt in the oil and water mixture to ½ t, and add 6 oz black Greek olives. They should be the thin-skinned round ones that vary in color from dark brown to black. Do not use Kalamata. (Sam and I used dry-cured Greek olives—very salty, but his preference.) Cut the olives all the way around their middle and loosen them from the pit, producing 2 detached halves from each olive. After you have poked hollows into the dough in the pan, as directed in the basic recipe, push the olives, cut side facing down, into the hollows, embedding them deeply into the dough, then brush the dough with the oil, water, and salt mixture. Bake the focaccia as directed in the basic recipe.
Floury Sam high jinks while waiting to knead the dough
Adapted from Roald Dahl’s Even More Revolting Recipes
A plate of Tongue Rakers
You will need:
Bowl, lightly greased
Large baking sheet
1 batch of bread or pizza dough
2 cloves of garlic
1 ½ T butter
1 ¼ t salt
1 egg yolk
1 ¼ t rosemary, fresh or dried
½ t coarse salt
1. Heat the oven to 400 deg. F.
2. Mix the bread dough. Knead and allow to rise until doubled in size (up to 1 hour).
3. Meanwhile, finely chop the onion and garlic. Melt the butter in a small saucepan and add the onion and the salt. Cover, and cook over a very low heat for 15 minutes or until soft. Add the garlic and cook for 2 more minutes.
4. Drain the onion and garlic in a sieve and allow to cool.
5. When the dough has risen enough, add the cooled onion and garlic and knead again for 5 min. If the dough becomes sticky you may need to add a bit more flour—just enough to make it easy to knead.
6. Break off seven small pieces and one very large piece
7. Roll the largest piece so that it is the length of 1 ½ pencils, and a little bit thicker than a pencil.
8. Place this on the baking sheet.
9. Roll all the other pieces to the same thickness but half the length, and then attach these (by squishing) to one end of the long piece—to make a “rake” of dough. If your baking sheet is too small to do such a big one, you can just make it smaller.
10. Brush the Tongue Raker(s) with the egg yolk, and sprinkle with rosemary and coarse salt.
11. Bake the Tongue Rakers until golden brown—probably 20-25 min.
12. Gobble up; i.e., rake your tongue with these yeasty treats!